Should We Hunt Our Deer? A Farmer Weighs in

This sets me apart from almost everyone else involved in the deer debate. Mainly it alienates me from the people who passionately care about the deer herds, but do not and cannot fully provide for them.

Deer in yard by LM

Editor’s note: To cull or not to cull. That was the question last week when the village and town of East Hampton pulled out of a proposed federal plan to thin the East End’s deer population following several large protests, as well as a lawsuit filed by local opponents to the hunt.

The cull will proceed on the North Fork, where a wide swath of farmers, vineyard owners and local residents agree there are too many deer. The tiny hamlet of North Haven announced it would hire a wildlife management firm to cut its deer herd in half using bows and even shotguns; the North Haven mayor told the Sag Harbor Express he felt a need to do something “extraordinary,” given the extent of deer damage to property, cars and human health. Amid the ongoing debate, farmer Marilee Foster weighs in with her perspective from the farming community of Sagaponack, where a cull plan was contingent on funding from East Hampton as well as pending approval from the town of Southampton.

—- On one of winter’s coldest days I watched flocks of Canada geese land in the field behind my house. The first bunch is cautious —it’s still hunting season — they make a couple of passes before they, still cautious, set their wings and alight. For the remainder of the day, hundreds of them rain in until geese pretty much cover the entire 20 acres. They aren’t being sociable; they are hunkered down, and the snow drifts up around them. This is why they have feathers like they do. This birds’ physique could teach you something about appropriate winter attire; they have white patches of feathers on their eyelids.

I don’t like to point this out, because it is obvious: a farmer sees the world differently than a non-farmer. We stand apart even from those who avow themselves our friends and agents. I cannot stare out at those geese and appreciate only their vast beauty. I am more familiar with them. They have eaten down the cover crop on the highway fields; luckily the snow has kept the dirt from blowing. Cover cropping mitigates erosion, it’s also key for good soil health and, most noticeably, for what is left of our wild animals, the agricultural field is a food source. The rodents scavenge, the hawks hunt, the fox hunts, the owls hunt. And yes, we too, still hunt.

When I began farming there was little or no deer pressure in Sagaponack. When my father was my age he would travel to Maine to hunt deer. There have always been deer in the moraine (the woods), but in Sagg, where my ancestors participated in the gradual conversion of meadow to farmland, the deer were not inclined to dwell. Those that did most likely ended up in the curing house or, later, the freezer. The changes man has brought to the East End of Long Island (and almost everywhere else) are profound, especially from the vantage point of wild animals. It is not a pretty picture. But as a farmer, I also know I am in the unique position to feed much of what remains. And this again sets me apart from almost everyone else involved in the deer debate. Mainly it alienates me from the people who passionately care about the deer herds, but do not and cannot fully provide for them.

A debate about whether we should or shouldn’t shoot an abundant source of free-range protein can only happen in a society where the gross majority of people are either vegetarian or perfectly content with the meat they can buy at the supermarket. Our meadows have given way to suburbia and so has much of our mindset and habits. Hunting is not necessary, and so it is not widely done. We have a nice suburbia but like most of them, it grows unchecked. The deer get pinched out of their traditional cover in the woods and have adapted and thrived on what is left of the farm fields. Their new forests are the largely empty but splendid subdivisions. Here, the mature trees and shrubs are the forest for the modern, nearly domestic deer. Again their numbers command a study, the endless study. All one need study is the number of deer fence permits in the past 15 years. Don’t forget to calculate in fences without permits.

There are many ways to deal with the deer population, and a lot of them sound more palatable than sharpshooters. I doubt I’m the only farmer putting up 8-foot-high perimeter fencing as soon as the ground thaws. (And fences are a costly answer, at best.) Everything from birth control to the abolition of a government agency is persuasively touted. But right now, the farmer, who is looking at next year’s headland as already crossed by the plow, will tell you that talk is just that. Indecision and doing nothing should not be the hogtie of so many “feasible” alternatives.

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Marilee Foster farms and writes in Sagaponack.